The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New Orleans’s mayor battles an array of problems, some of them self-inflicted

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell in November 2019 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new main terminal of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner, La. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

You could not blame New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell for being angry. On a brilliant late-September day, the mayor was confronted with crime statistics showing that New Orleans had the nation’s highest murder rate during the first half of 2022.

Commentators, inevitably, had tagged New Orleans with the “murder capital” label. The mayor, asked about the designation, bristled and said, “I do not embrace that at all.”

Although acknowledging an “uptick in crime” (the homicide rate had increased 44 percent over the same period last year), Cantrell contended that the killings were less likely to involve random victims than people in disputes that turned violent, with mental health problems also sometimes a factor.

For me, it was deja vu. I have now lived in two of the nation’s “murder capitals” — New Orleans and, in the 1980s, Detroit.

Sadly, once a city gets that label, shaking it off can take years. If social media comment boards are any indication, people still think of Detroit as a deserted, dangerous place, apparently unaware of a comeback in its finances and development over the past decade. Detroit still has work to do in combating violent crime, but at least it is no longer a contender for the “murder capital” title.

At a book event up north last month, I was approached by an older couple. “You live in New Orleans? Is it safe?” the man asked. The woman brought up a recent Wall Street Journal story declaring a crisis in the Crescent City.

Yes, we worry about crime down in New Orleans, especially merchants and restaurateurs whose livelihoods depend on enticing people to leave the house. I had a long chat recently with a cafe owner who said business was fine on weekends, when tourists were out, but dried up on weeknights. Locals increasingly seemed to prefer staying safely at home after dark.

That reluctance can be difficult for a city to overcome, even with the most focused municipal leadership. Unfortunately, Cantrell, now in her second term, has provided a steady drip of distractions.

In the past two years, according to news reports, the mayor has cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses, including racking up $29,000 in airline upgrades to first class or business class. A trip to France this summer cost $43,000, reported, with Cantrell’s airfare alone costing more than $18,000.

After initially refusing to repay the city, contending that her travel was needed to attract investment and tourism, Cantrell relented recently.

But the mayor’s extravagant taste in travel has become a New Orleans punch line. “Where in the World is LaToya Cantrell?” gibed the cover of Gambit, a lively local news magazine.

Another stumble: Cantrell caused gasps in August when she warned that Mardi Gras in February might have to be canceled because the city won’t have enough police officers.

The announcement was stunning: Mardi Gras is vital to the city’s financial health, with an economic impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Cantrell’s warning, in addition to potentially discouraging tourists, shocked the thousands of New Orleans residents who are members of Mardi Gras parade organizations, known as krewes.

The Krewe of Themis, my group, had been told that the 2023 parade route might be shorter if not enough police officers were available, as happened last year. But no one foresaw the possible cancellation of Mardi Gras itself.

The next day, Cantrell backtracked. On Oct. 13, the city announced that Mardi Gras would go on, but with limited parade routes.

The shortage of police officers, amid the murder rise, is one more daunting challenge facing the city.

Some New Orleanians have had enough. A recall campaign started in August, amid revelations about the mayor’s travel spending. By late September, the recall organizers reported that they had gathered more than 10,000 petition signatures; about 54,000 will be needed by the end of February to get the recall on the ballot next year.

Tourists riding the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue recently couldn’t miss the big banners hung on the fence of a cream-colored mansion reading “Save New Orleans — Sign Mayor Recall.”

Nearby, a woman was collecting petition signatures. Wearing a big pink hat, pink suit, bright lipstick and bold jewelry, she barked at me, “Happy with this street?,” waving at the cracked roadway.

She had a point. Many streets are riddled with potholes, sidewalks are crumbling, and water-main breaks seem as ubiquitous as beignets in French Quarter cafes. (Some longtime residents contend that decay is a sign of the authentic New Orleans.)

Cantrell has experience with salvaging success from unpromising circumstances. She rose to prominence in the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when she successfully lobbied to save the Rosa F. Keller Public Library and surrounding businesses that had been devastated by the storm.

I swung by the library recently. It’s in a handsome vintage home with a modern addition and clearly plays a vibrant role in the local community. Even if Cantrell survives the recall effort, she needs to recapture the unified spirit that preserved the library and launched her political career.